Chapter 48

Bert and Daisy Find Each Other

The chill of winter was felt in Ma Grunter’s orphanage, too. Children in rags who are fed only on cabbage soup cannot withstand coughs and colds as easily as children who are well fed. The little cemetery at the back of the orphanage saw a steady stream of Johns and Janes who’d died for lack of food, and warmth, and love, and they were buried without anybody knowing their real names, although the other children mourned them.

The sudden spate of deaths was the reason Ma Grunter had sent Basher John out onto the streets of Jeroboam, to round up as many homeless children as he could find, to keep up her numbers. Inspectors came to visit three times a year to make sure she wasn’t lying about how many children were in her care. She preferred to take in older children, if possible, because they were hardier than the little ones.

The gold she received for each child had now made Ma Grunter’s private rooms in the orphanage some of the most luxurious in Cornucopia, with a blazing fire and deep velvet armchairs, thick silk rugs and a bed with soft woollen blankets. Her table was always provided with the finest food and wine. The starving children caught whiffs of heaven as Baronstown pies and Kurdsburg cheeses passed into Ma Grunter’s apartment. She rarely left her rooms now except to greet the inspectors, leaving Basher John to manage the children.

Daisy Dovetail paid little attention to the two new boys when they first arrived. They were dirty and ragged, as were all newcomers, and Daisy and Martha were busy trying to keep as many of the smaller children alive as was possible. They went hungry themselves to make sure the little ones got enough to eat, and Daisy carried bruises from Basher John’s cane because she often inserted herself between him and a smaller child he was trying to hit. If she thought about the new boys at all, it was to despise them for agreeing to be called John without putting up any sort of fight. She wasn’t to know that it suited the two boys very well for nobody to know their real names.

A week after Bert and Roderick arrived at the orphanage, Daisy and her best friend Martha held a secret birthday party for Hetty Hopkins’ twins. Many of the youngest children didn’t know when their birthdays were, so Daisy picked a date for them, and always made sure it was celebrated, if only with a double portion of cabbage soup. She and Martha always encouraged the little ones to remember their real names, too, although they taught them to call each other John and Jane in front of Basher John.
Daisy had a special treat for the twins. She’d actually managed to steal two real Chouxville pastries from a delivery for Ma Grunter several days before, and saved them for the twins’ birthday, even though the smell of the pastries had tortured Daisy and it had been hard to resist eating them herself.

‘Oh, it’s lovely,’ sighed the little girl through tears of joy.

‘Lovely,’ echoed her brother.

‘Those came from Chouxville, which is the capital,’ Daisy told them. She tried to teach the smaller children the things she remembered from her own interrupted schooldays, and often described the cities they’d never seen. Martha liked hearing about Kurdsburg, Baronstown and Chouxville, too, because she’d never lived anywhere but the Marshlands and Ma Grunter’s orphanage.

The twins had just swallowed the last crumbs of their pastries, when Basher John came bursting into the room. Daisy tried to hide the plate, on which was a trace of cream, but Basher John had spotted it.

‘You,’ he bellowed, approaching Daisy with the cane held up over his head, ‘have been stealing again, Ugly Jane!’ He was about to bring it down on her when he suddenly found it caught in mid-air. Bert had heard the shouting and gone to find out what was going on. Seeing that Basher John had cornered a skinny girl in much-patched overalls, Bert grabbed and held the cane on the way down.

‘Don’t you dare,’ Bert told Basher John in a low growl. For the first time, Daisy heard the new boy’s Chouxville accent, but he looked so different to the Bert she’d once known, so much older, so much harder-faced, that she didn’t recognise him. As for Bert, who remembered Daisy as a little olive-skinned girl with brown pigtails, he had no idea he’d ever met the girl with the burning eyes before.

Basher John tried to pull his cane free of Bert’s grip, but Roderick came to Bert’s aid. There was a short fight, and for the first time in any of the children’s memories, Basher John lost. Finally, vowing revenge, he left the room with a cut lip, and word spread in whispers around the orphanage that the two new boys had rescued Daisy and the twins, and that Basher John had slunk off looking stupid.

Later that evening, when all the orphanage children were settling down for bed, Bert and Daisy passed each other on an upstairs landing, and they paused, a little awkwardly, to talk to each other.

‘Thank you very much,’ said Daisy, ‘for earlier.’

‘You’re welcome,’ said Bert. ‘Does he often behave like that?’

‘Quite often,’ said Daisy, with a little shrug. ‘But the twins got their pastries. I’m very grateful.’

Bert now thought he saw something familiar in the shape of Daisy’s face, and heard the trace of Chouxville in her voice. Then he looked down at the ancient, much-washed overalls, onto which Daisy had had to sew extra lengths to the legs.

‘What’s your name?’ he asked.

Daisy glanced around to make sure they weren’t being overheard.

‘Daisy,’ she said. ‘But you must remember to call me Jane when Basher John’s around.’

‘Daisy,’ gasped Bert. ‘Daisy – it’s me! Bert Beamish!’

Daisy’s mouth fell open, and before they knew it, they were hugging and crying, as though they’d been transformed back into small children in those sunlit days in the palace courtyard, before Daisy’s mother had died, and Bert’s father had been killed, when Cornucopia had seemed the happiest place on earth.

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